NHRA NITRO TEAMS TALK ABOUT THE RISING COST OF NITROMETHANE
Competing in NHRA’s Mello Yello Series in Top Fuel and nitro Funny Car takes millions of dollars.
With the cost of racing on the rise each year, this season racers are also paying the price for the sanctioning body’s determination to stick with a single distributor of the lifeblood of professional drag racing, nitromethane.
At the end of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Series season it cost $1,195 for a 42-gallon drum of nitromethane.
During the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., a 42-gallon drum of nitromethane cost $1,428. Top Fuel and Funny Car teams also had to pay an additional 9.5-percent California sales tax on the nitro drums, making each drum cost around $1,564. This is a 19.5-percent increase, a bump up in price some team owners describe as unacceptable.
Back in May of 2014, it was announced that Sunoco would become the official sponsor of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) in 2015.
The 10-year agreement calls for Sunoco to become the official racing fuel of NHRA and will be the exclusive on-site gasoline and nitromethane supplier at all NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national events.
The increase from $1,195 a drum to $1,428 has some drivers miffed.
“We bought three barrels (drums) in California (at the Winternationals) and it was more than $1,500 a barrel,” veteran Top Fuel racer Scott Palmer said. “Anything you got from qualifying went toward paying (for nitro). It was ridiculous. It kills you (in the pocketbook). Luckily now, we’re not running a shoestring (budget), but if you take somebody who is or anybody who doesn’t have a big sponsor deal it keeps them from going. That’s why you saw 14 (Top Fuel dragsters) in Pomona.”
Competition Plus did contact NHRA about the rising cost of nitro and the sanctioning body declined comment.
Since the 2017 season, Palmer has had heavy financial backing from Tommy Thompson. However, prior to Thompson’s involvement, Palmer ran his independent team on a minimal budget.
“The way we survived was $10,000 in qualifying would buy you a barrel of nitro, a couple of hotel rooms and get some crew guys there and run the race,” Palmer said. “Maybe make one qualifying run a day. Now, if you know you’re going to have to spend half your qualifying money on two barrels of nitro to make the runs, you’re going to stay home. That’s what’s going to happen, and they did (in Pomona). That may not be why, but that damn sure is a good reason not to come to the next one. If we didn’t have our sponsorship and Tommy Thompson wasn’t helping us and we didn’t have the Magic Dry deal right now all the times that I’ve come out here to the West Coast to start the year off with no money, if it was like that for me right now I would not have showed up. I could not of. It would take half the qualifying money to buy nitro to qualify.
Just think if there’s 18 cars, even though they upped the purse, that’s $6,500, so you will spend all your money on nitro. A small team can’t afford to go. How can they do it? It’s not possible. It’s aggravating.”
Robert Hight, a two-time NHRA nitro Funny Car world champion (2009 and 2017) and the president of John Force Racing, acknowledged the rising cost of nitro has hit JFR’s pocket book.
In 2019, JFR is fielding two nitro Funny Cars – one driven by Hight and the other by legendary John Force - and two Top Fuel dragsters, one piloted by 2017 world champion Brittany Force and the other by rookie Austin Prock.
“We need all the cars we can get out there and it is going to make it tough on little guys, but when you do all the math for our four cars it’s going to cost us an extra $150,000 if it (the price of nitro) stays there for the season,” said Hight, who captured the title at the season-opening Winternationals. “It hurts everybody and a lot of it has to do with tariffs and things that are going on overseas. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have a nitro supplier or a manufacturer in the United States that we can get this from and kind of control the cost.”
Terry Haddock, a part-time Top Fuel and Funny Car racer, also weighed in on the issue.
“The price we paid for nitro (at the Winternationals) was ridiculous,” said Haddock, who had a Top Fuel dragster and a nitro Funny Car competing in Pomona. “It’s all crazy and what the problem becomes is that each one of these cars takes 18 gallons of fuel when it is bone dry. If you mix up 20 gallons and dump it in the car and start it and do a warm-up, then your average is four to five gallons, so by the time you have done two qualifiers you’re into another barrel. It’s bad. I understand there are situations with tariffs and tariffs need to be in place to fix bigger problems than ours, so what do you do. What I don’t understand is you can still buy a 55-gallon drum from Schumacher and we bought one of those in early January for a match race we did, one of those Street Outlaws things, and I want to say I paid $1,250 for a 55-gallon (drum of nitro).”
Bobby Lagana, a crew chief with Steve Torrence’s world championship winning Top Fuel team, and Palmer also each pointed out that nitro teams can get drums of nitro cheaper from Don Schumacher Racing.
“In testing, we buy nitro from Schumacher, who has the same Homeland Security restrictions, the same rules, but for some reason we can buy it from Schumacher for a lot less and it is delivered to the track,” Palmer said. “That’s wild.”
Mike Lewis, Don Schumacher Racing’s senior vice president, told Competition Plus that DSR sold nitro teams testing at Wild Horse Motorsports Park, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, 42-gallon drums of nitro for $1,008.
According to Lewis, the cost of nitro took a significant jump in 2017 and the high-water mark came in May of 2018. He said the high-water mark in 2018 was more than double the cost at what DSR paid at wholesale in the summer of 2016.
Lewis said some of the reasons for the increase were due to the cost of components that go into the nitro blend.
China’s EPA also had a crackdown and tightened up restrictions so some of the smaller distilleries that produced nitro were shut down until they comply to new Chinese regulations, which caused nitro prices to go up.
Lewis, however, said things have leveled off and come back by roughly 25 percent at wholesale from a high in May of 2018. Lewis also mentioned as of Oct. 1, 2018, a 10 percent tariff also has to be paid.
Mike Salinas, who has a championship-caliber Top Fuel team with renowned world championship tuners Alan Johnson and Brian Husen, also shared his thoughts about the high cost of nitro.
Salinas has competed sporadically in Top Fuel since 2011 and went full-time for the first time in 2018.
“The parts that we are running, we are diligently working with some groups to try and make the parts last longer,” Salinas said. “We are testing parts and doing different things from belts, rods, pistons, cranks all these different materials. But, at the end of the day, what it cost to run these cars, the sanctioning body we are dealing with, I run several different companies and I’ve been in business for 36 years, so if I don’t care about my customers, my customers leave. My thing is I believe the money that we do get is actually pennies. I think that the qualifying money should be about $25,000. That will get more smaller (budget) cars out there. Winning should be $100,000 and I think everybody is trying to improve, but the cost of doing business out there is quite expensive. That’s why you’re watching drivers like Tony Schumacher, who didn’t show up (at the Winternationals).”
Tony Schumacher, an eight-time Top Fuel world champion, announced Feb. 4 on his Facebook page the following:
“Some of you have probably heard the news that our car is parked. We are still working on a sponsorship deal. These things take time but like I said before, I am absolutely NOT retiring. I love this sport and have dedicated most of my life to it. I love my team and they are the best guys I know. Unfortunately, our car will not be at Pomona, but I will still be there to support my teammates and fans. Thank you all for your continued support and patience!”
The significance of Tony Schumacher being sidelined for at least the Winternationals wasn’t lost on Salinas.
“The winningest Top Fuel driver in history not having a sponsor sets a precedent and if nobody wakes up and understands it the sport is going to die sooner than they believe if we don’t start remedying things,” Salinas siad. “The sanctioning body should not be charging us $1,000 or $2,000 if you oil down. That’s just a slap in the face. We’re not planning on going out and blowing up. We’re trying to race our cars and do a good job and give the crowd a good show. They are doing something that’s funny and we all know this, they use the blow-ups for the highlights to get the customers in, the fans, and then they charge us for it. If you’re going to charge me or us for it, don’t use those on the highlights.
It so expensive to run these things (nitro cars), you will start to watch the multi-car teams fall apart because it is too much money. I know what it cost to run one (car), so throw five more on top and it doesn’t make it any better. I’m really concerned about it.”
Salinas acknowledged running a Top Fuel team is no easy task.
“It’s quite the undertaking with your crew, and the hotels,” Salinas said. “We’re trying to cut cost. I’m kind of a tightwad guy. I watch my pennies and put them in the right places. We’re on a weekly budget that we run our team on. If we go over that budget, we do not buy the parts. I do not care because if I break my own rules of going over my weekly budget we’re going to be in trouble and we will not be out there. It’s making everybody who deals with us as far as on the crew to be more conservative and understand what we are doing because if we blow up all our motors at one race, we might have to sit a race out, you never know. It’s not because of a lack of funding, it’s because of a lack of us not being vigilant in how we take care of things.”
Salinas said he has a budget in place for his team that he follows strictly.
“We have plenty of funding, but I’m trying to run this thing on a budget that I believe is realistic,” he said. “I think we can do it. We were close last year, and this year I think we are going to do a lot better than that because we have great people on the team in Alan (Johnson) and Brian (Husen). They are very conscious about what we are doing because if we run Mike Salinas out of business, Mike Salinas is not going to be here. Tell Mike Salinas that we can go win races and do really well with the money, we’re going to be out here for quite a few years.
I’m really watching my pennies on everything we do from hotels to our transportation to our air flights, everything we do. You don’t need 50 cranks sitting on the floor, why don’t we get 10 cranks? You don’t need 800 pistons, why don’t we get 300 and as we get closer we will get some more. There are all kinds of different ways to do this. We’re stocked for parts pretty good for the whole year right now, but I’m talking in general because I know guys who are running out there, they are from race to race and if they don’t get a check or get help they are not going to make it.”
Salinas believes the 14-car Top Fuel field at the Winternationals isn’t going to be an anomaly.
“That 14-car thing is just the beginning,” Salinas said. “It’s not going to be any honor going to win a Top Fuel championship with seven cars and eight cars in the class. Look, I want to race Tony Schumacher. Win or lose, I want to race the best guys. I want to race these guys who are legends. Tony Schumacher is the John Force of Top Fuel and we need that guy back out there. Things aren’t like they were five years ago and 10 years ago where it was carte blanche to go buy anything you want. I got my guys on a tight leash. We know what we are going to do. We know what we have to spend. We figured it out what it cost us per inch going down the track, and I will keep that to myself. That’s really, really important because everything in this world is hours, minutes and miles, that’s how are whole world exists.”